Bob Dylan, Jazz Stars Salute Label Pioneer John Hammond - Rolling Stone
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Bob Dylan, Jazz Stars Salute Label Pioneer John Hammond

The 45-year Columbia Records vet who discovered Billie Holiday and signed Dylan and Springsteen gets a star-studded television special

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Bob Dylan and clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman listen to legendary record producer John Hammond backstage at the taping of the special 'The World of John Hammond' in the studios of WTTW-TV on September 10th, 1975 in Chicago, Illinois.

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty

CHICAGO — Bob Dylan played for about 100 empty chairs and 100 fans at the NET Television studios September 10th. The occasion was a Soundstage special to be aired in mid-December, in honor of retiring Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who, during a remarkable 45-year career, recorded Bessie Smith and Benny Goodman, discovered Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian and signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The talk around town was that Dylan might not show, but he was in a private room in the studio complex by midafternoon, quietly rehearsing a pickup band while jazz veterans Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Jo Jones and Red Norvo practiced and reminisced in another part of the building.

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Dylan was no more than icing on the cake for many of the record executives, musicians and invited guests who’d gathered to pay tribute to Hammond. Emcees for the show were the recently retired CBS Records Group president Goddard Lieberson and Atlantic Records’ former vice-chairman of the board Jerry Wexler, both of whom were music men in positions that are usually filled by ex-lawyers and accountants. Clarinetist Benny Goodman, probably the most commercially successful single musician in the history of jazz, put in a rare appearance as a small group soloist, an event which for many middle-aged observers held the mystic promise of a Beatles reunion. The all-star jazz band of Hammond favorites was almost good enough to start the swing era all over again, and jazz singer Helen Humes, gospel’s Marion Williams and bluesmen Sonny Terry and John Paul Hammond (son of John Hammond) were equally outstanding. Jazz critic Leonard Feather and Mitch Miller, the goateed oboeist, former Columbia A & R chief and originator/star of television’s Sing Along with Mitch, circulated among the guests.

Rehearsals for the show proceeded through the afternoon at a leisurely pace. As participants arrived, they marveled aloud at the stage set, a creation of the show’s executive producer Ken Ehrlich and associate producer John McDonough. Rare 78 rpm records by Holiday, Goodman and other stars associated with Hammond had been photographed in color; the negatives had been blown up and projected on posterboard, the colors and lettering filled in with paint. The result was a studio full of huge records, eight feet in diameter, most of them hanging from the ceiling. The performers stood on another, larger 78, “Poor Butterfly,” by the Goodman Quartet.

The mingling was easy and open. Xylophonist Red Norvo and pianist Teddy Wilson had not seen each other in years and after a reunion embrace, they sat at the piano and played a celebratory duet. George Benson, the phenomenal electric guitarist whose current recordings are heavily arranged, easy-listening jazz affairs, began ripping off single-string Charlie Christian runs, and Benny Goodman, who used Christian in his sextet in the late Thirties, broke into a huge smile. Only Dylan failed to put in an appearance.

“Why is he being so shy?” wondered the puckish Mitch Miller. “He didn’t useta be shy. He used to sit in John’s office all the time, asking everybody when something was gonna break.” Hammond, Wexler and a few other acquaintances of Dylan’s left the studio to greet him, but returned almost immediately. “He was rehearsing,” Wexler explained, “and I thought I ought to just say hello and split.” An observer described Dylan’s meeting with Hammond as “extremely warm,” but it was also extremely brief. Dylan hadn’t appeared on television since the 1969 Johnny Cash Show, and he rehearsed his band relentlessly before returning to his hotel for an early-evening break.

As a gourmet dinner was served in an adjoining studio, films of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday scheduled for the show ran on a large monitor. When Bessie pocketed a fistful of dollar bills during her appearance in St. Louis Blues, a rotund promotion man asked Hammond if it was the advance he’d given her. The laughter that echoed around the candlelit tables was a trifle nervous; the contrast between the technological affluence in the room and the weather-beaten, worldwise faces on the screen was difficult to ignore.

Seated at a center table, Hammond seemed to transcend it. He had joined American Record Co. (predecessor to the Columbia label) in 1932 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. As the scion of a wealthy family, he had been able to sponsor sessions and pay musicians out of his own pocket when company funds were not available. He was an early civil-rights activist. He joined the NAACP’s board of directors in 1936, pioneered the racial integration of performing bands when he urged Benny Goodman to hire Teddy Wilson, presented the first major jazz and blues concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and fought blacklisting during the Fifties.

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Then in 1962, he convinced several Columbia executives that he was insane, passing up an opportunity to sign Joan Baez and coming up instead with Bob Dylan. “They called Bobby ‘Hammond’s Folly,'” John later recalled. “He hadn’t written many songs and he didn’t play guitar or harmonica very well. But there was a mystique about the kid, that’s all I can tell you, there was.”

Hammond was also responsible for bringing Columbia Aretha Franklin (who went on to become the Queen of R & B on Atlantic), Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. Franklin was asked to appear on the Soundstage show and declined. Springsteen was not asked because Ehrlich felt the publicity surrounding his new stardom would take some of the limelight off Hammond.

The show began with Marion Williams, who suggested something of Bessie Smith’s overpowering presence and exuberance. She sang “How I Got Over” and “Jesus Traveled This Road Before.” Hammond then talked about the last Smith session; the choice of tunes – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Gimme a Pigfoot” – had been hers. “I don’t want to do no blues,” she’d told him. “This is hard times.” After that, he mentioned another of his discoveries, Count Basie, and Benny Carter led his all-stars through two jumping Basie blues. The cameras captured Red Norvo’s rapturous devotional expressions, drummer Jo Jones’s mugging and flashes of recognition on all the players’ faces as they settled into a groove. When Helen Humes, resplendent in an aqua and salmon gown, applied her exceptional sense of pitch and phrasing to “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business” the band outdid itself.

At least half the audience had come to see Benny Goodman, and the clarinetist did not disappoint them. Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones and bassist Milt Hinton comprised the most inspiring rhythm section imaginable, but it was George Benson who lit Goodman’s fire. The guitarist tore into Charlie Christian’s “Seven Come Eleven” as if his life depended on it, and Goodman’s smile turned into a grimace of concentration as he fought for a moment to get on top of the surging rhythm, and then took the piano with a solo that put most of his recorded efforts to shame. The audience stood and cheered and then, much to the dismay of the show’s producer and director, half of them left.

The evening proceeded with the cameras trained directly onstage, ignoring the empty seats. Sonny Terry and John Paul Hammond turned in an accomplished blues set, but by 2:00 a.m., as the stage was being cleared for Dylan, only the faithful remained. Producer Ehrlich, a compact, bearded man, paused to chat. “This is crazy,” he said. “I’m crazy. But we had to do it in one night, as an event. If this show had been done by CBS, they’d have taken a week and the magic would have been lost.” That raised an interesting question. Why, with Columbia’s Hammond, Lieberson, Humes and Dylan involved, hadn’t CBS Television done the show? “Because,” a long-time Columbia Records employee rumbled eight days later, “the CBS Television people never cooperate with us in any way. It seems to be their idea of how not to show favoritism.”

Dylan, who’d napped backstage, came on with his band around 2:10 a.m. Rob Stoner, a bassist recently introduced by Dylan’s sidekick, Bobby Neuwirth, and drummer Howie Wyeth were the rhythm section. The surprise was a willowy fiddler with long, dark brown hair and flashing coal black eyes. She called herself Scarlet Rivera and, according to Greenwich Village gossip, is an actual gypsy who was walking down Second Avenue with her violin case when Dylan spotted her and struck up a conversation. But several Chicagoans in the audience recognized her as a woman named Donna, who’d lived in town during the late Sixties and who’d once helped the Hog Farm organize a rock concert benefit for the Chicago Seven.

Rivera warmed up tentatively, and then Dylan appeared – bearded, scowling, dressed in black and white striped Sixties-leftover slacks, a white shirt with ruffles at the neck and sleeves and a black leather jacket. Dylan fixed her with a penetrating stare and hit the opening chords to “Hurricane Carter,” a song from his as-yet unreleased album about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a one-time world middleweight boxing contender and current convicted murderer who, according to Dylan, was tried and imprisoned unjustly.

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The rolling music and aggressive lyrics made up for the rhythm section’s merely adequate accompaniment, but the real drama was occurring between the fiddler and Dylan. Dylan continued to stare intensely into Rivera’s eyes, and her playing built from a lackluster beginning to a soaring lead. “It’s Svengali and Trilby,” cracked a pundit in the audience.

“Hurricane Carter” was long and involving. In the small studio, Dylan’s voice seemed quieter and gentler around the edges than it had on his tour with the Band, but his presence was no less electric. After the applause for the song had died away, he bent over the microphone and said in measured tones, “I want to dedicate this to someone out there watching in the audience. She knows who she is.” The song that followed, “Oh, Sister,” was almost hymnlike, with images of death and rebirth, love and separation.

It was followed immediately by “Simple Twist of Fate” from Blood on the Tracks, a half-spoken, half-sung, passionate performance. Then Dylan, still scowling, announced that “we’re going to do the first one over” and this time “Hurricane Carter” flew from the first notes, with Rivera’s violin and Dylan’s harmonica blending into a windy wail.

As soon as the song was over, Dylan left the stage; he was halfway across the studio before his band realized he was gone. He gestured impatiently for them to follow and disappeared through a side door, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the audience’s expectation of an encore. There was a momentary sigh of disappointment and then the listeners who were left began to file out. Everyone agreed that Dylan’s appearance had been extraordinary, but some were taking him to task for his attitude. “He could have said something about what he owed to John,” somebody said aloud. Three days later back in New York, Dylan reportedly agreed. “For all John Hammond’s done for me, it was worth staying late,” he said.

Hammond was ecstatic. “Just the fact that he came was incredible,” he said. “And that song about ‘Hurricane’ Carter is magnificent. I think it’s going to free him.” He meant that the song’s impact would free Carter, but at least one observer thought he meant free Dylan.

This story is from the October 23rd, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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